Will Intel be inside your next smartphone?

The first Intel-powered x86 (Medfield) smartphone will be hitting the hyper-competitive mobile market in China this summer – courtesy of Lenovo. 

Obviously, Santa Clara has quite an uphill climb to deal with when it comes to the smartphone and tablet segments, both of which are currently dominated by ARM’s low power-sipping RISC-based architecture.

But does Intel have at least a fighting chance of powering future smartphones in the US?

Well, SemiAccurate’s Charlie Demerjian believes that while hardware and software are obviously important factors, the success or failure of “Intel Inside” smartphones probably rests on fickle “consumer whims.”

“Will people be tempted away from their iToy by a slick Intel Inside logo with an Atom hologram on it? Hell no. Will consumers be tempted to the dark side, err, micro-architecture by visions of 3x CPU power over an ARM A15, or 17x the GPU power of a Tegra? Hell no,” writes Demerjian.

“Will consumers care what CPU, GPU, or anything else is in their phone? The overwhelming majority won’t have a clue what you are asking about if you survey them, but “‘Oooh, that one is shiny and the blue LED blinks!'”

Nevertheless, Demerjian emphasized that Intel’s Medfield SoC is competitive with any mobile SoC currently on the market.

“[Medfield] has the software support at launch to do what is necessary, and as long as Intel keeps shoveling money at software, things will stay that way. In the end, the crystal ball says that Intel still has a chance, but it is a steep uphill climb,” he explained.

“[Yes], the check boxes are all ticked, and things look positive for launch. [True], the last three attempts to get Atom in to phones were an unmitigated disaster, but things really are different this time. Intel can do well with Medfield and will have some solid products on the market shortly.”

Obviously, Demerjian is not alone in his cautiously optimistic assessment of Medfield. Indeed, as TG Daily previously reported, prominent Silicon Valley analyst David Kanter recently termed Intel’s Medfield platform a “credible SoC” for smartphones.

“After 4 years, 3 process technologies and 3 different designs, Intel finally has a product with power consumption that is appropriate for smart phones,” Kanter confirmed in a recent analysis on Real World Technologies.

“[And] the good news for Intel is that the Medfield reference design seems to be better than the current generation of smartphones. However, the first Medfield products are not slated until the second quarter of 2012.”

As Kanter notes, TSMC’s 28nm high-k/metal gate process is just beginning to ramp for complex designs like GPUs and SoCs, which means that in the latter part of 2012, the competition for high-end smartphones will be quite different.

 Essentially, the current 40nm-gen of SoCs from Apple, Qualcomm, TI, Samsung and Nvidia will be replaced by faster and lower power versions, leaving Medfield to face much tougher competition for most of its life.

“Realistically, Medfield will not have a decisive performance advantage over platforms like TI’s OMAP5 or the Snapdragon S4. At best, Medfield will be slightly ahead of the competition; but in many cases Intel’s performance may lag by 10-30%,” Kanter estimated.

“The one area where Medfield is likely to retain an advantage is the ISP, which is highly programmable, unlike many competing designs. The main disadvantages for Intel will be microarchitectural, since competing SoCs will generally use the higher performance A15 or Krait CPU cores and updated graphics.”

Kanter also emphasized that Intel’s mobile roadmap was perceived as “attractive” by the hyper-competitive mobile industry, as Santa Clara remains on track to ship a 22nm FinFET SoC with the new, power-optimized Silvermont CPU and the recently announced PowerVR Series 6 graphics in 2013. 

In contrast, the RISC-based chip world will ramp 20/22nm in 2014 at the earliest, an approximate gap of 6-12 months.

“Judging by Intel’s plans for 14nm SoCs based on the Airmont CPU core in 2014, this process technology advantage is only likely to grow over time… [Of course], whether that advantage will yield a significant smart phone market share for Intel is uncertain, but Medfield clearly demonstrates that it is possible,” he added.